LACONIA — Concerns that the Belknap County Nursing Home could lose more staff in the coming days have prompted the County Commission to schedule an emergency meeting to discuss possible ways to raise wages – and to discuss the possibility National Guard service members caring for residents.
The meeting has been scheduled for Monday at 5 p.m. at the County Complex, according to commission Chairman Peter Spanos, who on Wednesday said the nursing home is in “crisis mode.”
For months now, nursing home and county administrators have been saying the home has been losing nurses because the pay is substantially less than what other local long-term care facilities pay.
“We are going to discuss whether or not we can do a lump-sum payment or significantly adjust wages,” County Administrator Debra Shackett said of Monday’s meeting.
Asked why the commissioners were resorting to a special meeting rather than waiting for the commission’s next regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday, Shackett replied, “We can’t wait that long.”
She said in recent days and weeks there have been indications that more and more members of the nursing staff have become enticed by the possibility of quitting and going to work for nursing staffing agencies that offer double or triple the amount of pay they are earning now, depending on the category of credential a nurse holds.
Some local private long-term care facilities pay twice what the County Home does, Spanos said.
Spanos said wages at the nursing home have been “artificially low for many, many years.” He described the situation at the nursing home as “very fluid.”
He stressed that the nursing home’s plight is not unique to Belknap County and that some other county nursing homes in the state are in similar straits. He acknowledged that the problem has been made worse by the pandemic and is being further aggravated by the requirement that all health-care workers must, by Dec. 5, be vaccinated against COVID.
Even prior to the outbreak of COVID health-care facilities were under strain due to the nationwide nurse shortage.
The nursing home has been operating at two-thirds of its 94-bed capacity because of the staff shortage. Nursing home Administrator Shelley Richardson told commissioners last week she fears the COVID vaccine mandate could cause more nurses to quit. In order to maintain the required staff-to-patient ratios that would mean closing another wing of the facility, and finding new places for 19 of the home’s residents.
Shackett said that she would have recommendations to present to the commissioners on Monday. On Wednesday she said she was still “working on the numbers,” and, as of yet, had no idea what those recommendations might be.
Spanos said he hoped that whatever proposal the commission supports will be sufficient to stabilize staffing so the nursing home will be able to stay open for the rest of this year “and hopefully well into 2022.”
“I’m sure we’ll be reaching some consensus” at Monday’s meeting, he said.
Spanos said it was unclear whether the commission would need to get permission from the County Delegation to reallocate funds in order to increase wages, but was prepared to do so if necessary. He said the commissioners are scheduled to present the 2022 county budget to the delegation on Dec. 9 and the pay situation at the nursing home would undoubtedly come up at that time.
Shackett said Richardson has been in regular contact with Gov. Chris Sununu’s office to discuss the possibility of members of the National Guard being brought in to augment the home’s depleted staff.
On Tuesday Sununu told a news conference that Guard members could be deployed to assist in nursing homes, thereby allowing the long-term care facilities to take new admissions, and relieve the strain on hospitals which are running at or near capacity.
“We have the space. We just don’t have the staff,” Shackett said.
“The governor said that would be under his consideration,” Spanos said. “Maybe we need to have that discussion with the governor before Christmas.”